Exposure Is Instrumental: Mick Jenkins Interview

Publication: Clash Music Online
Date: Feb 2017
Image Credit: Nici Eberl

We are living in the golden age of communication. Messages are beamed from fingertips to phone screens in nano-seconds, and those with enough influence are able to share their innermost thoughts to millions – sometimes with near-apocalyptic consequences. The landscape of human interaction has become some macabre, post-fact wasteland of memes, heart reacts and emojis. Everyone is connected, and yet we remain totally incapable of reconciling our differences. When so many people are screaming out their ideologies, how do we know who we’re supposed to listen to?

Forget fake news and alternative facts, we can take comfort in the fact that there still exists some people who want to cut through the bullshit and misinformation, and turn our attention to the definitive truth of the matter. These are the people who really care about the state of things, and for whom one thing is self-evident: spreading memes will only get you so far. In order to progress as a global community, we need to spread love.

In Chicago, there resides a young rapper who’s intelligent flows and obsession with truth is setting him apart from his contemporaries, and setting his fans on a path of enlightenment. At 26 years old, Mick Jenkins possesses wisdom way beyond his years; drawn from a path that has meandered unexpectedly from a burgeoning career in the judiciary to becoming one of the world’s foremost counter-culture rappers.

Daunted by a way to adequately way of introduce such a complex and accomplished young artist, I begin our conversation by asking Mick Jenkins how he would do it. Obviously uncomfortable, but never lost for words, he sets off with; “I’m a progressive, hip-hop artist that started to write poetry before I ever started rapping. I’ve got… a lot of range. I’m heavily inspired by neo-soul, and I don’t completely feel comfortable describing myself.”

More self-aware than most, it’s clear that in Mick Jenkins, hip-hop has a spokesperson with clear technical skill, that encapsulates an unfaltering confidence in his own ability, fierce conscientiousness and total commitment to realness; “You know, I just want to be viewed as a real person,” he says, gracefully avoiding temptation to engage in hyperbole. “I don’t necessarily avoid ignorant shit and I don’t want it to ever come off like I’m above that ignorant shit. I grew up in it and around it. I just reacted to it differently.”

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I don’t completely feel comfortable describing myself…

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From studying law to selling out shows, via stints in both PR and prison, Mick has an experiential knowledge that gives him the eloquence and impetus to pass on the lessons he has learned about the nature of truth and love. On ‘As Seen In Bethsaida’, a track from his debut album ‘The Healing Component’, that references the desert in which Jesus broke bread and shared fish with thousands, Mick delivers his devastating perspective on ignorance and inexperience as root causes of self-deprivation. “I’m from the South Side of Chicago, I know the mental. The self-hate is really just incidental, exposure is instrumental.” Every record exposes his fans to lessons and new ideas, and every one of Mick’s energetic live performance are interjected with didactic, spoken word interludes, giving glimpses of what it would be like to witness Tupac giving a TED Talk.

Towards the end of 2016, Mick finished touring ‘The Healing Component’ worldwide, to scores of eager and receptive fans. The album skilfully stretches out and switches between metaphors for truth – including both the THC referenced in the albums title, and a concept of water which flows from the preceding projects ‘Wave[s]’ and ‘The Water[s]’. Sonically it ties together his trademark fondness of smoke-infused jazz instrumentals with fiercely perceptive metaphor and wordplay, borrowing the talents of Kaytranada, BadBadNotGood, and select members of the new Chicago vanguard – Ravyn Lenae, Noname and theMIND – along the way.


Unfortunately, it never quite made the impact Jenkins had hoped for, it’s release marred by an unhappy relationship between Mick and his label, Cinematic Music Group. But critics and witnesses to it’s live retelling, attest to its perceptive brilliance. “At least the fans love ‘THC’, and that makes for a great live show,” Mick says with a hint of bittersweet reflection. “Most importantly, people are coming to shows and attempting to understand it, feel it, come together and scream ‘Spread Love’. When I talk to people after the shows, they really want to know how to adopt these principles.”

It’s interesting to hear of a journey from prospective lawyer to champion of the people, and it’s clear that it wasn’t a path that Mick had always envisaged. “I’m like whoa, I’m not a love guru, I don’t got it all together! But it lets me know that people are really invested in what I have to say and that’s what keeps me on the up and on my toes.”

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Oh man when I first started, I was talking about nothing – because that’s what I was doing at the time.

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Unlike many of his peers in the rap game, dreams of the stage and the acclaim were always secondary for Mick. He won competitions, grants and scholarships at Chicago’s Federal Building, rapidly progressing towards achieving his primary goal of taking to the stand and putting his precocious way with words to use as a cross-examining attorney.

“Like everyone else at High School, I used to bend the rules,” he admits. “But I was good man, and that’s what lead me to pursue law. I was like ‘I’m going to do this cross examination and I’m going to rip people to shreds, and it’s going to be just like Law and Order.’ I even fucking got a $1000 dollar grant by winning some law shit in the city! But, I was just manipulating. Manipulating words and language, finessing the truth and it took me a while to stop and think ‘this is what really happens in the law.’” Afforded the rare opportunity to see the other side of a system that has been the downfall of many young black men in America, set off a chain of life decisions the would see Mick swap annunciation for annotation.

Weaponising his written word first in a corporate setting as a PR copywriter, and then as a spoken word poet, Mick had only dipped his toes into the waters of hip-hop intermittently. He remembers back to the first time he performed his own work set to music, at a college talent competition, where the first prize of a pair of Beats By Dre headphones drew his interest. Recounting the over-confidence that ultimately brought the first taste of defeat to his music, Mick returns to the idea that ability without substance doesn’t spell success. “Oh man when I first started, I was talking about nothing – because that’s what I was doing at the time. One thing I’m consistent with is being real, but I was just in college and listening to Wiz [Khalifa], smoking heavy, and fucking drifting all the time and that’s all that went into my raps.”

All of this absolutely shaped who I am as a person…

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It wasn’t until after he ended of his attorney aspirations, after he dropped out of college and after he was forced to quit his Copywriting job that the rich tapestry of his youth started to manifest properly into music. “I had to quit because I ended up having to go to jail, but then I ended up learning a bunch of lessons there,” he said, of a 34 day stint in Alabama, a mis-demeanour charge for driving under the influence of alcohol and with a small amount of marijuana in his possession. “All of this absolutely shaped who I am as a person – and that’s all I’m giving up in the music, who I am.”

From an ambitious young man that never saw music as offering realistic career prospects, Mick Jenkins has cultivated a global following and glowing reputation from his peers. London’s own laureate of life experience, Little Simz, flew Mick out from Chicago at the weekend to perform as part of her Welcome to Wonderland: The Experience at the capital’s historic Roundhouse, the two matched in their progressive nature. Now his focus turns to exploring the visual aspect of his creativity, scripting and producing a feature-length film set in Chicago, “about a young man who learns a big lesson about love.”

For all of his fearless verses, foreboding stature, and golithic stage presence, Mick Jenkins is a romantic in the same vein as history’s most celebrated poets. His music possesses an initially jarring fusion of street politics and lessons of love, but consistently brings together an awesome ear for progressive instrumentation and the pursuit of progressive ideas.

If he is given the freedom to explore his own creativity, and continues to surround himself with fellow pioneers, like Little Simz and his Chicago peers – all artists, thinkers and creatives in their own right – then he will continue to bless these troubled times with rare instances optimism and integrity. The search for truth will help us get back to the thing that’s more important than tweets, memes and lies. Spread love.

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